Workers criticize service at clinic


A private medical clinic Baltimore officials hired to give injured public workers better, more efficient medical treatment has provoked widespread complaints from patients about daylong waits and poor care.

Baltimore police, firefighters and other municipal employees who get hurt on the job say they have been forced to wait hours past their appointment times at downtown's Mercy Medical Center, which operates the clinic.

"It's chaos down here," said Samuel Singletary III, 54, a housing inspector who waited 8 1/2 hours Wednesday for a follow-up appointment for a hand injury, caused when a gang of teen-agers attacked him during an inspection of a house in Park Heights.

Singletary returned to the clinic the next day to complete paperwork, and then waited from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. before giving up.

Mercy has been running the clinic for 5,000 police and firefighters since 1997 under an $850,000-a-year contract with the city. Since Sept. 3, the clinic also has been treating 25,000 other municipal employees, including city schoolteachers, under a new $2 million-a-year city contract.

Dan Collins, spokesman for Mercy, acknowledged that some patients have endured long waits recently. He blamed delays on growing pains, as the clinic has prepared for workers covered under the new contract. He also said medical personnel have had to take time to get acquainted with the patients, whose files have not been transferred from the city-run clinic.

"We're less than two weeks into the contract," Collins said. "We are not unaware that there have been some times when people have had to wait. ... As we're settling into this new process, there may be more delays early on. But we want to do it correctly."

Police and fire union leaders say the problems have been longstanding. In addition to long waits, they say the clinic has denied them access to necessary medical tests.

"Probably the biggest headache we have as a labor organization is the rank and file's relationship with Mercy," said Gary McLhinney, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. "Chronic waiting, very poor relationship with the physicians. We've had nothing but problems with them."

The Baltimore City FireFighters Union has posted a vice president at the clinic full time to look out for its members' welfare, said President Rick Schluderberg.

One-year wait for MRI

Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, said the clinic forced him to wait a year for the magnetic resonance imaging his personal doctor ordered after he fell out of a second-story window, landing on his shoulder, during a fire in October 1998.

City workers are entitled to seek medical treatment for on-the-job injuries from their personal doctors under their health insurance plans. But they must be evaluated by the clinic if they want to claim a line-of-duty injury or receive workers' compensation benefits.

Fugate said he finally got the MRI in September 1999, after working all year in considerable pain, and the test confirmed the need for surgery.

"When [the doctor] saw my MRI, he got me into the [operating room] within a week," Fugate said. "The damage was that severe."

Collins could not comment on Fugate's case but said Mercy has provided quality care for job-related injuries for 25 years.

"I think we're definitely concerned about everyone who comes through our doors," he said.

Collins expressed surprise about the police and fire complaints. He noted that the original three-year contract with those agencies, which began in February 1997, was extended several times and that the city is considering another renewal.

"It's a positive relationship, otherwise we wouldn't be seeing a renewal," he said.

Collins said he did not know the size of the clinic's medical staff, which is under the direction of Dr. James Levy. Nevertheless, Collins said that the staff has increased by one-third since the new contract began.

The Mercy clinic had about 11 employees in May of last year, according to a report from two business groups that pushed for privatization of the second city clinic.

The city first turned to Mercy under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to replace a city-run police and fire clinic that cost about $1 million a year.

Following the advice of two influential business groups, Mayor Martin O'Malley decided to close a separate clinic for other municipal workers, a move that trimmed 22 employees from the payroll and is expected to save $18 million over the next five years.

The $2 million cost of the latest contract is more than the $1.6 million the city paid to run its clinic. But officials said the deal would save money because Mercy will do a better job of detecting fraud and getting injured employees back to work. They also said employees would receive better care.

The idea for privatizing the clinic stemmed from a study in May of last year by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable. The study found that clinic staff interpreted workers' compensation regulations too liberally. It also found that the city clinic cost more to run and provided poorer service than the one Mercy operated for police and fire personnel.

At the time of the study, the city clinic had a $1.46 million budget, was open from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and on an average day saw 72 patients who each spent three hours in the waiting room, the study found. The Mercy clinic operated with a $1.4 million contract, had 24-hour coverage and saw an average of 86 patients a day who each waited 45 minutes, the study said.

'Just sitting around'

Fire and police union leaders say waits have been much longer than the reported 45-minute average, even before the clinic took on the additional municipal workers.

A reporter visiting the clinic late Thursday afternoon saw about 20 patients in the waiting room, including some who complained they had been there since 9 a.m.

Among them was Andrea Coleman, 30, a public works laborer, who had been hit in the eye with a broom handle that fell out of a tool shed. She spent about six hours at the clinic Tuesday, five the next day for a follow-up appointment, and more than six on Thursday.

"We're getting a lot of calls. It's ridiculous," said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44.

"The workers are just sitting around," he said. "They could have been treated and sent out in an hour."

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